11 of the Best, Most Stunning Festivals in the World
Your Coachella days may be behind you, but there are festivals around the world that don’t involve flower crowns or short-short cut-offs. From revelries of color and tomatoes to celebrations of fire and ice, these 11 fetes are worthy of a trip for the photo opps alone.
When: Early spring
The Hindu festival, known as the “Festival of Colors,” celebrates the victory of good over evil with a free-for-all of rainbow splatter—participants cover each other with brightly pigmented powders as they sing and dance through the open streets.
Where: Buñol, Spain
When: The last Wednesday in August
What began by chance in 1945 has evolved into the most beloved annual one-ingredient food fight in the world. Set in the town square, a gigantic pile of tomatoes awaits excited participants ready to pummel each other for an hour or so until they wash off the remnants in a local pool. The good news? The citric acid actually leaves the streets extra clean.
Yi Peng Festival
Where: Chiang Mai, Thailand
When: A full moon of the second month of the Thai lunar calendar
Sky lanterns are essentially small hot-air balloons constructed of rice paper. While used for centuries around Asia for different festivities (and also for military reasons), the most popular occasion is held in the ancient capital, where thousands of people launch their lanterns to bring good luck and tham bun (or Buddhist merit) and fill the night sky with light.
Dia de Los Muertos
Where: Mexico City, Mexico
When: October 31 to November 2
While the “Day of the Dead” is widely celebrated across Mexico and even internationally, the holiday (during which families honor their ancestors and pray for their spirits in the afterlife) is best enjoyed in Mexico City. Exquisite altars covered in marigolds, painted skeleton faces and dancing Calavera Catrinas (“Dapper Skeletons”) make their way in Technicolor down the four miles of the Paseo de la Reforma as hundreds of thousands cheer on the parade.
Mondial Air Ballons
Where: Chambley-Bussières, France
When: Every two years at the end of July
Beating out the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta for the largest hot-air-balloon gathering in the world, the Mondial Air Ballons draws over 300,000 spectators over ten days to gawk at the 900-plus balloons in the sky.
Where: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
When: Four days before Ash Wednesday
Brazil’s most popular national holiday attracts tourists from all over the world (about half a million people!) to take part in the parties, music, drinking and, of course, the famous parade—aka “The Greatest Show on Earth”—as a major brouhaha before Lent. The event is so important, the city built the Sambadrome, a street-turned-permanent parade ground with bleachers, specifically to house it.
Snow & Ice Festival
Where: Harbin, China
When: January to February
If you thought that party luge at your friend’s wedding was spectacular, you’ll be absolutely floored by the scope of this winter festival’s sculptures: They’re basically frozen cities constructed of ice. The best part? At night, the buildings and monuments glow as multicolored lights shine through their translucent walls.
Where: Nara, Japan
When: The fourth Saturday of January
While the origins of this tradition vary—no one’s sure whether it was a boundary dispute between two temples or a way to prune wild boar pests—the dead grass of Mount Wakakusa is burned in an annual “mountain roast,” which is followed by a fantastic fireworks display. The resulting firelight leaves bystanders with a spectacular, one-of-a-kind light show.
Carnevale di Venezia
Where: Venice, Italy
When: 40 days before Easter
Similar to Carnaval in Rio, this pre-Lent celebration is world famous for its grandeur—especially the elaborate costumes. The artisan-made masks even have names, like the bauta, a simple stark white or gilded one; the Colombina, a half-mask decorated with gold, silver, crystals and feathers and held up with a baton; the Medico della peste, aka the plague mask; the volto, the classic Venetian mask usually with a white base and gilded details; and so many more.
Up Helly Aa Fire Festival
Where: Lerwick, Scotland
When: The last Tuesday in January
The torch-lit, half-mile procession and burning of a Viking longship has been an annual Shetland tradition to mark the end of the Yule season since the 1880s. While a thousand or so male participants dress up and take part in the procession, only the head of the festival, the Guizer Jarl, and his squad can don Viking garb. As for women and children, it’s viewing with the 5,000 onlookers from the sidelines (or now even streaming online).
Where: New Orleans
When: The Tuesday before Ash Wednesday
Another let’s-party-before-Lent celebration, this famous Louisiana fete has the masks of Venice’s Carnevale, the party vibes of Rio’s Carnaval and the beads you don’t want to ask your friend how she got. With a major parade every day of the two-week celebration, there’s really no party like a Bourbon Street party.